By Pierre ' Piet' MICHIELS with particular thanks to Phil BALL for the translation
It’s Thursday 15 July 1943. The rays of the midday sun flood the valley of La Cornette.
There’s an engine noise in the sky and the whole village of Auby look up to the few clouds. A plane. There are black crosses under its wings. A small plane starts to fly in wide circles around the farm of La Billarde, around the blackened debris of the other, the British aircraft.
There is no school today and smartly dressed children are playing in the streets. At the sight of the slowly descending Fiesler Storch all of them rush to the ridge that overlooks the valley. There it is, its engine running, swaying on its wheels as it approaches the edge of the pine forest. The echo of the engine noise suddenly disappears. The side windows are raised and two men get out. One a German officer, recognizable by his cap, and the other dressed in flight overalls. The small crowd surround the newcomers at a respectful distance. Suddenly, the officer takes off his belt and opening the case, raises his gun over his head. Arm raised, he shows it to all and in broken french says that he will leave it in the plane and he would not advise anyone to take it. Children are petrified.
The two men then follow the slope down the hill through the pine forest, the man in overalls carrying a small package. Curiosity gets the better of the children and some approach the plane whilst others follow the two airmen to the creek below. A few minutes later and everybody can see them among the blackened rocks, amid the debris and the remains of burned vegetation. For a long time the officer seems to collect himself and he then lays a wreath of flowers along the small road. He is inspecting the scene, observing. Time feels like it is suspended. Suddenly, however, the two German airmen walk up the slope. Children scatter in the forest and run back towards the ridge.
Meanwhile, Nelly GENARD who lives in La Billarde joins the children. She has a camera and shows it to the airmen. The officer looks affable and he manages to make it clear that he is happy for her to take a picture of his plane but only if the children are in the foreground. He does not know that she has already taken a picture of the aircraft registered ‘..+ CD’ and which does not bear the crest of the NachtJagd on the engine cover.
While all the children are being placed in a row, and without the knowledge of Hptm. GEIGER and Fw. KOCH, the first and the bravest of them climb on the port wheel and give a military salute. The one of the Allies, not the one of the Germans. The crowd runs away from the plane when the engine is re-started. Limping briefly on its landing gear, it pulls off the ground before quickly climbing into the sky.
The day before, on the night of 13/14 July, a British bomber has crashed near the hamlet of La Cornette. Awakened by the huge explosion, some residents of nearby villages defy the curfew, some to give help, others out of curiosity, and walk to the crash site. In the middle of the night and helped by all the villagers, the Priests of Les Hayons and Auby collect all the human remains of the unfortunate British airmen in a large bowl, before the German soldiers arrive. They then proceed with the Christian burial of the remains of the crew and bury them in the early morning in the churchyard of Les Hayons. The events of the day are recorded in the liber memorialis of which Pierre Bourgeois found some extracts.
Numerous accounts have been recorded by René Martelange and René Thomas.
Louis PICART lives in Auby. He is 20 and tells anyone who will listen that he saw a fireball coming down slowly. Then shortly after, there was a loud noise and a huge explosion with a great light near the farm of La Billarde, in the bottom of the valley. At sunset, we left with other people of Auby to see what had happened overnight. At the farm we were told that a crashed plane had lost a wing that had fallen into a pasture. We walked in the fields up to the river of Les Alleines in the direction where we could still see black smoke rising into the sky. The wing of the plane had dropped a few hundred metres from the wreckage of the plane.
Evence ROZET, who is 13 years old at the time, lives in the hamlet of La Cornette. He says that in the middle of the night we heard an explosion followed by popping sounds in the night. Shortly after we were told it was a plane that had crashed. My brother Leon and I ... we went there at night, to approach the wreck. The aircraft had struck some rocks. Of course people wanted us to go away - it was not the place for children. We circled around a huge fire ... We were looking for wounded men ... At sunrise, I remember scattered human remains ... The priest of Auby managed, with all the other adults to recover the human remains, which were all placed in a large galvanized basin carried on a wheelbarrow.
On July 13th, 1943 John VANMOSNENCK is 13 and is hosted by Mrs. Leona NEMERY in the village of Auby . He remembers :
Around 7:15 local Time on the morning of July 14th, we learn from our neighbors Wanlin that a large aircraft had fallen overnight at the "farm Génard ": this can only be an allied plane.
Gathering in front of the farm some adults choose to have a look. We both left the farm: Leona Nemery and myself. Along the way we meet some women walking to the same place through the Billarde , but we meet no one returning.
Arrived on the crest over the Billarde, one can see the smoke below the farm at seven or eight places, on both sides of the road Fays -La Cornette .
At that moment, there is still dew on the grass, I do remember that feeling.
We walk down the hill. A light mist covers the banks of Alleines, probably consecutive to a combination of soil moisture, the presence of the river and the fire. As I stand there I can notice a dozen people walking in the middle of the burned vegetation and debris.
Down the Génard farm, I can see the other side of the river, the slope above the road has been scorched by the flames, with remnants of burned bushes. There are no large trees there, just bushes. The greatest evidences of burning place and impact are visible on both bars rock located on the other side, above the road. It seems this is the point of impact of the aircraft. From where we are, we distinguish rock debris on the “dogs heads" road on a length of 50 meters.
We arrive in the field before the creek. The view towards the site of impact is completely clear: on the right, there is a forest of about 3 meters high and on the left a pine forest of 7 meters high.
We cross the field and we headed to the bridge made of logs. Passing this little bridge, my eyes fell on human remains .../... partially burnt.
Between the river and the road, one can see many small metal debris still burning. There is a lot of debris scattered here. The tall grass and bushes are not torn or damaged, or burned, only lying, as if the debris had fallen from above, as rain.
We head to the side of the road, climbing at half slope. In the slope above the road, there are small debris but nothing bigger than a saucepan. We distinguish clearly what seems to be the impact of the plane: the rocks.
I remember an overwhelming feeling of sadness for the airmen who lost their lives here.
Nobody says a single word . Everything is meditation or dismay.
So far, no German soldier is visible, but we fear they can get here at any time. This is why we don’t climb up on the road, but our position makes it possible to see it. Apart from the debris of rocks (the size of a rubble), metal debris are scattered on the road about 30 meters left and even on the right. On the embankment and on the road there are also human remains.
And stuck in one of the rocks there is a heap of twisted metal, crumpled as crushed, with a diameter of over two meters, dark color with a metallic sheen.
In the slope overlooking the road, there are several large impacts in the ground, with pieces still smoldering.
We remain at the scene for 30 minutes. It is 8:45 Local Time when we return to Auby. On the way back I picked up a small spring that I was to keep long as a treasured memory: to make sure I would never forget...
Maria MARY is 32 years old; she lives in Fays-Les-Veneurs. Like many others, she walks to the crash site on 14 July early in the morning. She remembers that there were already other people there when I arrived on the site. It was a sad sight: there were pieces of metal everywhere. I saw many burned human remains, either on the ground or clinging to the wreckage. I also saw a shoe in a tree, pieces of white parachute, with the strings hanging down, burned in the rubble. It was sad to see ... At the scene, there was a deathly silence among the curious ... There were also boxes on the ground with tablet of pills ... By late morning, I cannot remember the time, the Germans arrived and sent away the curious.
A little later, another witness walks down the road from Fays-Les-Veneurs, approaching the crash site down the creek. Halted by German soldiers he has time to see some kind of blackened metal cupola, with four burned metal extruding bars. The rear gunner’s turret and its Brownings. He adds you can see inside it, it's empty.
In Fays-Les-Veneurs, some saw the low pass of the bomber just before it crashed.
Maria MARY says she heard an engine noise and saw a long trail of fire coming from the direction of Bertrix that disappeared behind the hill, towards Paliseul ... Then there was an explosion in the sky ... Soon after, I heard a lot of engine noise. I went to the bedroom window and saw, coming back from Paliseul this time, a huge airplane that had a large fireball all around it ... Everything was on fire, except the front part ... It disappeared more or less between the woods and the ‘Ban of La Cornette’. A few moments later I heard a terrific explosion that brought down the bedroom curtain rail and the curtains and dust covered the floor. The roof of the house was made of clay as were many houses at the time.
On July 12th, the order of participation of 115th for the raid against TURIN has been canceled at the last moment. The lancasters are kept bombed-up during the night.
The next day on July 13th, Bomber Command ordered a raid against Aachen, code name Elver (young eel). With 355 other RAF aircraft, 115 Squadron will participate with 17 Lancasters. And for the first time, DS690 is part of it.
After the weather briefing, the crews are trying to eat their meal. A few more hours and the powerful Hercules engines will be started. The waiting is the worst part. 90 minutes before take-off the crew put on their equipment. Underwear is not standard equipment and is left to the discretion of the airman and is chosen depending on his perception of comfort and his resistance to the freezing cold. The summer of 1943 is hot this year, but it will be -15 °C up there. They all wear their oval identification circles around the neck, it gives their name and service number. Before getting into the little truck that takes them to DS690, they take with them a kit with escape maps printed on silk, a compass, and some banknotes. Everyone takes delivery of its parachute and is reminded humorously that if by any case one could not be satisfied by its operation, it is then necessary to return it to the squadron where replacement will be made according to RAF standard return policy...
As usually, W/C RAINSFORD is going around to see the crews before they take off. He remembers that ‘Jock’ BAIRD asked me if I would like to fly with him that night. We are old and good friends and I was very tempted to do so. But since the rules were pretty strict that senior officers no longer take the air together unless absolutely necessary, I decline and say I look forward to seeing him in the morning. Perhaps the time for a last cigarette, WALKER is certainly again joking BAIRD about his promise to abandon his nobiliary titles at the end of the war. Or a last joke from ODENDAAL with whom R.A.G. BAIRD is used to enjoying rather ribald jokes… It's time to board.
One by one, the generators start hissing and then launch the rotating propellers that disappear into invisibility. The night air vibrates with the howl of more than 70 Bristol Hercules engines.
Then the Taxi starts with a slow procession of navigation lights, then the fix point, waiting for the green light from the Aldis lamp. Brake released, a last wave to the ground staff lined up along the runway, and on 13th July at 23:55 hours GMT, DS690 leaves the ground heavily, as if reluctant ...
A short trip over Europe, just 4 hours and we're back shows the diary of a crew. It is true that the target is relatively close. The procedure is known. Rally off Lowestoft, line up in the stream, then 52 ° 35N / 03 ° 20E, then Noordwijck, then 51 ° 00N / 06 ° 16E, then a timed passage to the objective followed by the return going south and flying over the Ardennes, then 50 ° 20N / 05 ° 42E, next the French border, the Artois, Cayeux, the Channel and finally Beachy Head.
It is a beautiful hot and still night. It's nearly full moon. There are few clouds at 15,000 feet. The Pathfinders lead the way. We just have to follow them. The northwest wind is favourable. Between 90 and 120 kph, the Met Officer had not forecasted so much. Bah, we'll find that the wind will surely slow us down on the return flight.
Things become more complicated over the Netherlands. Despite the diversionary raid by 6 Mosquitoes over Berlin 'Whitebait', the massive stream is already detected. The various night fighter squadrons of NJG1 watch over the area. The Pathfinders of 35 Squadron, equipped with the four engine Halifax, suffer the first losses. The leader of the other pathfinder force, the Canadian 405 Squadron, is also shot down. Planes fall, the first before 01.30 hours GMT and 6 more others before flying over the target. This is the struggle at the front of the bomber stream, 18,000 feet. Heading to Cologne, the bombers then turn sharply to starboard on a course of 230, in the direction of Aachen. The bomber stream continues to climb, 20,000 feet. But where are the target markers? There are not many TI’s. Yet given the size of the target, the procedure for mass target indicating Parramatta has been ordered.
DS 690 is already flying on its bomb run and the Navigator MOORCROFT has already taken place in the astrodome ensuring that no other bomber is flying above the Lancaster.
The target. Already ? Too early ... Much too early.
A few flares, the bomb aimer has to be certain. A mission report indicates 8/10 cloud at 10.000 to 12.000 ft. over target. City defences are light.
WALKER gives his instructions to the skipper, the bomb bay is opened. A hurricane of noise.
Left, left ... ok. Right, right ... a bit, skipper. Steady ... steady. The fingers are clenched on the bomb release switches. ... Steady ... bombs away!.. And here goes the Cookie.
A strong jolt when the charge is released. The bomb bay is closed. Calm - despite the roar of the engines.
The city, behind, below, burns. Quick let’s get out of this hell.
Suddenly, a shout, the voice of MATTHEWS, the rear gunner: fighter ! Starboard, go, go!
Instinctively, BAIRD launches the heavy bomber in a starboard dive.
A series of shocks, explosions. The sound of torn metal, the staccato of machine gun fire. DS690 is diving, diving steeply to the ground ... After seconds that last an eternity, the climb to port ... then the levelling off, quickly stabilized by BAIRD, but the Lancaster tends to fly nose down, the controls are heavier. The elevators are probably damaged but she still flies. The smell of cordite. We are hit. Quick, a check of the intercom. It works, but no answer from astern. ROBINSON is screaming that it was a night fighter, that it’s over now but the tail gunner has been hit. ODENDAAL checks his gauges, everything is ok, nothing is burning and we are not losing fuel. On the order of the skipper, he slips back, over the beam, and ensures that everything is OK with ROBINSON. He continues to the end of the fuselage, the doors of the rear turret are broken. MATTHEWS is lying, sprawled on the spent .303 cartridge cases. The perspex sides of the turret are jagged, icy air rushes inside. The engineer takes the wounded gunner to the berth located at the wing root, on the port side. The gunner regains consciousness, he is given first aid. But the turret mechanism is now wrecked, it is useless ... Come on, let’s go home.
According to the only combat report registered within 115 sqn, which is the only squadron to fly lancasters that night, one minute after bombing on a course of 230°, F/O CHRISTIANSEN is flying beside ‘Jock’s bomber at 01.49 hours GMT. His gunner sights a Ju88 attacking the Lancaster of the squadron leader, which is returning fire and diving to starboard taking evasive measures…
In the following days, Bomber Command produces the results of the raid: an unusual number of aircrafts dropped their bombs in the first moments after zoulou hour. 2,927 homes are destroyed and also the offices of the Central Post Office, the prison, two infantry barracks, a military depot and eight manufacturing plants and equipment of rolling tires.
According to an account registered by Jean-Pierre Mertens, Raymond KLEINERMANS is a belgian prisoner, jailed at that time in Aachen. He has not forgoten that designated as mandatory worker, I hid to escape. Certainly denounced, I got caught ... Sent to Chemnitz, my only concern was to escape ... Taken down after work, it was thanks to the complicity of a co-worker that I escaped.We were picked up and I was taken to the prison of the Red Barracks in Aachen.On the night of 13 to 14 July 1943, the sirens announced an impending air attack and our guards took us to the cellar. As nothing happened, the sirens signaled the end of the alert. No sooner had we returned to our cells, as sirens screamed again and the first explosions were heard. Head buried in my arms, my body formed a ball that I wanted the smallest possible. The air rend by the noise, smelled powder and was saturated with dust. Air boosts raised me, quaked me in every way and I can not remember who shook the most, me or the floor. And that wouldn’t stop ... It was the most terrifying night of my life.
On the German side, propaganda speaks of terroristangriff. There are 294 dead and 745 injured.
The war of statistics.
Anyway, the city is deserted for several days, as attested by the municipal registers of food stamps.
Heinrich Herwegh lives in Aachen at the time. He remembers that on the night of 13/14 July 1943, we were bombed twice. We lived in Büchel, No. 51. It was a major attack, between 01.45 hours and 02.42 hours Local Time, there were 200 planes which dropped more than 100,000 incendiary bombs and phosphorus. There were 300 dead and 750 wounded, besides 3,000 people who suffered temporary eye injuries. A portion of the population has left the city to be accommodated elsewhere with family. Those of us who did not know where to go had to move to areas imposed by the authorities in Saxony and Lower Silesia. Following this we were evacuated to Primkenau in Lower Silesia. After 10 days I had to return to Aachen to find work. Part of the city was in ruins, industrial districts located to the north-east were destroyed. Other buildings were damaged including the churches of St. Adalbert, St. Michael-Aachen, Burtscheid Saint-Michael, St. Nicolas, St. Paul, St. Peter, the Theatre, the Chamber of Commerce and a concert hall. I decided that my children would stay with their mother in Primkenau until the end of the war.
Within the stream of bombers, crews in the first wave stated that the target was identified only by the flares and that the bombing took place from an altitude of between 16,000 and 21,000 feet by lining up on the few red TI’s. Fires are very concentrated and a loud explosion is visible at 01.46 hours GMT. The smoke obscured the target, but the glow of fires is clearly visible. The flak is lightly active.
The crew of DS690 is already too far away to see it. More than 30 miles away, in the mid-upper turret, ROBINSON can only distinguish the glow of the explosions.
Usually BAIRD always flies back his heavy bomber very low over enemy territory. He told his wife, who is expecting their third child: flying outward at nought feet is the only way to counter the odds. Like some other pilots, he shares the idea that on the run to the target, we fly for the RAF, on the way home, we fly for ourselves ...
But this time it's another story. The Lancaster is crippled with shrapnel, the elevator controls are damaged, and the bomber has a tendency to lose altitude. One cannot afford to fly low. After discussing the situation with MOORCROFT, the navigator, the choice is made: a safe course is to fly high, much to the south, parallel to the stream.
Everything is quiet now. We cannot see anything around us. MOORCROFT, the navigator gives instructions to the pilot: Skipper, course 240. One crew member notes we are changing course, again, more to the south-west now. What the crew does not know is that the stream of bombers has already been detected by the two long-range FREYA radars of the 301st. Regiment of Aircraft Night Search, especially the one situated near Bouillon.
Soon we will be over France and at risk of other attacks from night fighters based in Belgium and France. And that damn wind is from the front and is slowing us down. On board Lancaster DS690 SMITH, the wireless operator, focuses all his efforts on the radar rear warning device.
In the far east of the intervention square ‘M’ that has been assigned that night, GEIGER for his part is finding it hard to stay focused. Over an hour circling around Marteleng beacon he thinks, and still no information ... and if the British had turned back home on a northern course? Suddenly, the voice of KOCH in the Intercom Stellung ‘Bulle’ has ordered M2, course 015, 3H viermots (heavies), 5000.
A violent push on the engine controls. The twin Mercedes 605D engines power the night fighter to its waiting orbit. Yet the voice of the bordfunker: course 360. The Messerschmitt Bf110 rushes through the air, racing to intercept the bombers. The ground radar guys have done a good job thinks GEIGER. According to their instructions we should be soon in the flow of hundreds of bombers.
There are more than 300, well to the north, flying level between 15,000 and 20,000 feet. A flood more than 40 km long by 10 km wide. A huge whirring cloud.
Skipper, course 260 announces MOORCROFT through the Intercom. Aboard the bomber nobody is aware of the fact that for several minutes the surface of the Lancaster has been hammered by billions of electronic pulses from the WURTZBURG interception radars situated in Belgium, in Mogimont. There, a technician of Stellung Bulle/301 RegLuftNachRichten has randomly selected a point on his screen. A radar echo, much to the south of the stream. This point is DS690. This point is also the lives of seven young people.
The Bomber Command report on this mission will record 41 attacks carried out by German night fighters, which, added to the 18 losses, brings the number of dogfights to over 60. Probably more. About 1 bomber in 5 is attacked.
The weakness of the Lancaster is its blind spot underneath the belly of the bomber. In the summer of 1943, there is no machine gun defending the belly of a Mk. II and no crew member can be positioned to keep watch. Only the rear gunner, and secondarily the mid-upper gunner, can keep a look out for a night fighter on a climbing approach from below. But MATTHEWS is no longer at his post and the rear turret is no longer usable. He is wounded lying on the bench in the middle of the fuselage.
Apart from the frequent banking conducted by BAIRD, the crew now relies on Monica, the passive watching device which uses a flying antenna. In England, few technicians are aware of the Flensburg detection system and it is still advisable for crews to make heavy use of these Doppler measurements.
The bordfunker KOCH calls his pilot. He has acknowledged receipt of messages from the radar control station. Viermot, straight ahead. Turn port course 300.
GEIGER is surprised: already?... so close, it must be an isolated one…
The second weakness, which is true for any aircraft, is the positioning of fuel tanks in the wings. The Lancaster is a huge flying bomb bay. At full load, there is no room in the fuselage for additional tanks.
The heavy bomber adds a third, namely trimming of the aircraft which is made according to the flight configuration. On the way to the target, and with a bomb load, to relieve the load on the fuselage the fuel is held in the wing tanks. On the return flight the weight is re-centred on the fuselage. So, the inner tanks permanently contain fuel.
Another minute and guided by technicians of the Bulle radar station, KOCH finally sends the code Emil, Emil.
His eyes glued on the three circular radar FuG 202 dials, he reported 2,000 contact, port, course 260. The night attacker aims at the wing root, between the fuselage and the first engine. The fuselage of the bomber is then very near to the centre of the collimator of the night fighter.
Suddenly, the bordfunker KOCH shouts to his pilot: achtung, dive to port! flensburg detection...
Aboard DS690, they actually detect a fleeting echo on the rear. Another bomber, an anomaly or something else? Impossible to determine for SMITH and BAIRD. We have to expect another contact.
Still a long minute, time feels like it is suspended. Skilfully guided, the threatening Bf110 is slowly gaining distance, climbing up under the belly of the bomber. KOCH announces contact 200, ahead 400. Ich Behurhe. To you.
Fourth weakness, the poor defences of the bomber in terms of both calibre and reserves of ammunition. Bomber Command has given priority to payload and range. Any superfluous pounds means less bombs carried ...
There is the bomber. Have to line up in the airflow. Low speed… and rise slowly, thinks GEIGER. What improvements we have made since we were taught in fighting school to use only the rudder to aim the entire length of the wing, from the wing root to the tip. Less dangerous, but not effective enough, no guarantee.
Fifth uncertainty, nobody aboard can see anything more than 400 metres distant. At this distance, obscured by the camouflage of his speckled grey fighter, an experienced German pilot is already under the belly of the bomber.
GEIGER focusses on the last step. Approach so close that you can nearly touch it. Not too close. That's it. Like that. Under the left wing. One can distinguish the huge engine nacelles which stand out against the milky background of the sky. Definitely, when firing, I prefer to use stick and rudders. Slipping to the side when going up. More dangerous, but better results. I fire on both the wing, the engine, and the fuselage. I have barely eight seconds firing with my 20mm.
The sixth uncertainty aboard the bomber is the use of machine guns at night. .303 rounds are fired in a sequence of armour piercing and tracer rounds. It is taught in gunnery school that there is a risk that preventive firing can alert the night fighter. Don’t shoot unless you are sure that the attacker has targeted you and that you are sure to hit him. Only the darkness protects the bomber ... There are not many reports of a gunner managing to shoot down a night fighter. In reality, everything depends on the pre-flight instructions given by the skipper, the pilot. He is the one who imposes firing, or evasive measure, or evasive measure and firing.
Fully concentrating, GEIGER thinks. And then there's this new technique of NJG4 in Florennes. This is incredibly dangerous, only the stick, aiming at the wing root. A long shot with a sharp vertical climb. One must surely be pretty close to the tail ... But what a result. Immediate killing. Like in Dinant last week.
Now! Geiger screams. The fighter violently climbs upwards while he is pulling the trigger.
Seventh uncertainty, if the presence of the night fighter is detected by the crew to port and astern, the recommended evasive measure is to corkscrew. Left turn with rudder, diving to the left hand, right turn, rise to the right, left turn, diving left, and so on until the attacker has been shaken off.
The beginning of the manoeuvre is made according to the axis of attack. To the right if it comes from starboard and to the left if it comes from port. The pilot relies entirely on the gunners who give the order to port or to starboard. If the order is late, there is an unfavourable conjunction between the early stage of banking , the beginning of the turn and the firing burst of the fighter. The bomber rolls on its side when the fighter is firing. In addition to the wing and engine, the side of the fuselage is then very exposed to the 20mm shells fired by the heavy guns of the night fighter.
Perhaps ROBINSON thinks about it when he asks BAIRD to roll the bomber from one wing to the other. Skipper, ok to bank on port ... Suddenly he sees the fighter, there, just under the port wing. At 02.05 hours GMT, it’s the attack. Port! Go, go, go ... he screams into the intercom. Instantly, BAIRD turns the bomber hard left ...
Too late. The explosive shells pass through the wing, piercing the tanks and wrecking the engine. Shock, the sound of torn metal, light, and fire. In general, this is what all survivors remember of a night fighter attack.
KOCH is shouting, target is hit ... It's done ... It burns.
The long burst has also shredded the left side of Lancaster, all along the wing root. Aboard DS690 all men to port are dead or dying. The wireless operator SMITH and the navigator MOORCROFT are slumped over their tables. The wounded MATTHEWS is now lying down on the berth. No answer from the gunner ROBINSON . Pilot BAIRD lies unconscious, his head leaning against the perspex. DS690 is slowly stabilizing and then she dives. The engine noise is deafening. There is no intercom, you must shout to be understood.
WALKER, the bomb aimer, lying in the bubble before the time of the attack, drops his sextant, and clings to the pilot's seat. First of all, take control ...
ODENDAAL, the flight engineer, can’t help, too busy trying to extinguish the port engine fire by hitting the knob of a methyl bromide device. Quick, he thinks, feather the propeller. Checking gauges, reducing engine power.
WALKER manages to push the pilot's body down the seat. He takes his place, he is at the controls. He is the most qualified among the survivors. Just think about it: 99% on the pilot examination, and yet he was not chosen, short one percentage point they said. First levelling the wings. We’re diving fast ... but it’s OK. We’re pretty high ... and then rudder to starboard to follow the course ... The Lancaster plunges toward the ground, 10,000, 7,000, 5,000 feet.
The fire in the port engine seems to be out, the propeller is feathered. The plane pulls a little to port, but very much downward. Nothing serious, Walker thinks, it can be controlled with the trim set to starboard. But the vertical trim is not enough to climb, pull, pull…I have to pull so much on the controls. They say that a Lancaster can fly on two engines to England ...
But the fire flares again inside the engine cover, the flames rush through the holes left by the 20mm shells. The plane constantly goes down. WALKER must make a tremendous effort to pull the stick. The fire. We must extinguish the fire in the wing thinks ODENDAAL. The intercom is now inoperative. A glance backward to see that there is nothing to do either for the second gunner ROBINSON, still strapped to his post, arms hanging down from his body.
Already the smoke creeps into the cabin through the heating nozzle on the port side, near the wireless operator’s table. We’re down to 2,500 feet. WALKER manages to stabilize the bomber. We fly level. But the fire, the fire. Fire resumed in the engine nacelle. The flames are creeping into the fuselage through the heating duct. One cannot see a yard.
The Flight Engineer pulls his flight helmet off and grabs a single canister of oxygen. Fortunately they are still operational. ODENDAAL then empties the portable fire extinguisher and burns his hands, his face, without success. Groping, he returns to the cockpit. He thinks WALKER still has control of the aircraft at roughly 2.000feet, but he cannot see anything, he must rely on instruments, we are on course 300.
Suddenly a hand grabs him. WALKER… He indicates the floor at the front. You have to jump. You have to jump now. Instantly the flight engineer grabs his parachute. He harnesses the loop, jumps up to the front, raises up the bomb aimer’s seat, pulls the handle, releases the hatch and pushes it into the dark. The wind pushes. 70 cm by 50 cm, it is not easy for someone wrapped up in his flight gear with a parachute on his back. He's stuck, his boots are torn by the blast of air. He is free. He falls into the black. Then silence, as the aircraft flies away.
For C for Charlie, it's too late. In the pale light of the full moon, flames on her side are burning fiercely along the entire bomber. Yet she is stable. She flies level.
An impact on his back and a white corolla above his head. The silence of the night. Tossed in his deployed parachute ODENDAAL is thinking about WALKER. Bale out ! ... bale out now!
Just one minute left. At Bertrix, witnesses are watching the low pass of the two aircraft. Marthe DURUISSEAU, then 50, says that the aircraft passed over the house. They were noisy and we heard they were firing. As for Madeleine DOM, 33 years old then, she says it's above my house that the aircrafts passed, at very low altitude, firing. The window of my bedroom was half open and I stood in front looking at the direction taken by the two aircraft. I could see them for perhaps 10 seconds.
Again, the thud of shells bursting. DS690 is still flying but the bomber rapidly loses altitude. A few more seconds and beyond the village of Bertrix, a last burst, shrapnel tearing the port tank. A large explosion in the night. Pieces of torn sheets of metal. Fire. The fire is everywhere now. The wing profile is destroyed. The air no longer holds the port wing. It's 03:10 hours Local Time when the Lancaster sinks on to its left wing and begins to turn in a hopeless spiral dive.
Before diving to the ground which is so close now, the majestic bomber slowly raises its right wing vertically, in a gesture of supreme elegance to the sky that saw her birth and brought her one night only… Like a last wave to heaven.
Picture’s credit to : huntspost.co.uk, Mr Pierre Michiels, Nelly Genard / René Martelange, Pierre Bourgeois, Pierre Bourgeois, -, lancaster archive.com, National Archives, Mr Pierre Michiels, National Archives, IWM, ww2aircraft.net, aachenbiblio.org, Mr Pierre Michiels, sas1946.com, -, flypast, -, Mr Pierre Michiels.